Friday, June 9

Technology Can Bolster Resilience to Drought in East Africa

VICTORIA, British Columbia — In March and April 2022, a La Niña weather pattern caused a devastating drought in East Africa. The failure of much-needed spring rains has left millions in the arid regions of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya at risk of severe famine. These nations’ economies are heavily dependent on agriculture and are thus incredibly vulnerable to fluctuating weather conditions. Drought in East Africa disproportionately affects impoverished rural populations because their livelihoods depend on successful growing seasons and livestock rearing.

One cannot overstate the significance of agriculture to peoples’ livelihoods in East Africa. In all three nations, rural and urban populations depend on the agriculture sector for income and food security. Given the economic reliance on agriculture, poverty alleviation strategies must target the agricultural sector to achieve long-term growth and improve livelihoods.

Drought and Food Insecurity

Drought in East Africa is a common occurrence due to the arid nature of the region. Over time, pastoralists and farmers have been able to adapt to these conditions to mitigate the impact of dry spells. However, after four years of failed rainy seasons, this year’s drought has quickly become a humanitarian emergency as millions of people in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya face displacement.

More specifically, the drought in East Africa has resulted in up to a 70% reduction in crop yields. It has also caused a minimum of 1.4 million livestock deaths in Southern Ethiopia and an estimated 1.5 million livestock deaths in Kenya. This devastation of the livelihoods of pastoralists and farmers in East Africa has led to increasing food insecurity. In Somalia, more than 7 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. The situation is similar in Ethiopia and Kenya, with more than 6.8 million and 3 million people respectively in need of aid.

Rising Food Prices

While the World Food Programme (WFP) has been supplying the region with foodstuffs and cash transfers to help mitigate the effects of the drought, the organization is experiencing significant underfunding. As a result, the WFP can only reach about half of the people in need of aid.

To compound this problem, the war in Ukraine has caused rising prices for wheat and other cereal foodstuffs. East Africa is heavily dependent on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. Disruptions in supply chains due to port closures and conflict in the Black Sea have doubled shipping costs for certain routes, which has resulted in the rise of food basket costs by 66% in Ethiopia and 36% in Somalia. Not only does this place a further burden on food security but it also means that funding for aid buys less and does not go as far.

Every DRIP Makes a Difference

To mitigate the effects of drought in East Africa and increase drought resilience, NASA and USAID have implemented a joint innovative solution in Kenya and Ethiopia. First installed in 2016, the Drought Resilience Impact Platform (DRIP) uses NASA satellite data and groundwater sensors to forecast potential drought conditions and determine areas with groundwater supplies that can compensate for a lack of rainfall.

DRIP aims to empower pastoral communities in East Africa who are most vulnerable to water and food insecurity. About 40% of pastoralists in East Africa live in extreme poverty and these communities are the most affected by malnutrition and other preventable deaths due to drought.

During a drought in East Africa, agricultural communities become more dependent on groundwater resources. Local and national governments in East Africa can use the data obtained from DRIP to monitor groundwater resources, predict groundwater demand and provide insight into which regions potential drought conditions will most severely affect. This will allow water resource managers to accurately allocate resources during drought conditions and ensure all groundwater pumps are running efficiently. DRIP can potentially mean “the difference between a ‘drought’ and a ‘drought emergency.”

Agrivoltaic Energy

Another solution for building drought resilience in East Africa is agrivoltaic technology. The technology combines rainwater harvesting, solar energy and crop production to improve the value of crop yields during dry spells. The arid climate of many regions in East Africa limits crop production to a select few species that can survive in dry climates. Yet, even these species suffer in drought conditions, resulting in low crop yields and increasing the threat of food insecurity for impoverished farmers.

Researchers implemented the first agrivoltaic energy system in Kenya in 2022. The project receives funding from the United Kingdom Research and Development’s (UKRI) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRG). It is part of a collaboration between several universities in the U.K., nonprofit organizations and local governments.

Agrivoltaic systems use solar panels that farmers mount in a way that allows for crops to grow underneath, shielding the plants from intense sunlight and preventing crops from dying due to heat stress. These conditions allow farmers to produce a wider range of crop varieties in addition to expanding the availability of arable land. This will improve crop yields and increase income and food security during dry conditions, which will improve farmers’ resilience during drought in East Africa.

The implementation of innovative solutions to provide stability and resilience during a drought in East Africa is becoming increasingly essential. Not only do these solutions support the region in avoiding humanitarian emergencies but they also provide long-term poverty alleviation strategies that help improve the livelihoods of East African rural communities.

– Kaitlyn DeWeerd
Photo: Flickr

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